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Stella Kon

Singaporean author, poet, and playwright of Emily of Emerald Hill.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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The love of writing motivates me.

Stella Kon, 13 August 2013

Stella Kon is a Singapore author, poet and playwright. She has written 30 plays, 10 scripts for musical theatre, 12 short stories and four novels, among other works. She is best-known for her 1982 play Emily of Emerald Hill, which has been performed locally and internationally to acclaim.

Stella Kon was born Lim Sing Po on 15 April 1944 in Edinburgh, Scotland to parents from well-known families in Singapore. Her paternal great-grandfather was Dr Lim Boon Keng, while her maternal great-great-grandfather was Tan Tock Seng. She spent her infant years in Edinburgh where her father was studying medicine, away from the war that had seized Malaya.

In 1948, the family returned to Singapore and settled in Emerald Hill where her maternal grandmother ruled the clan in a mansion dubbed "Oberon". There, Kon was steeped in a non-traditional, westernised environment. Kon's father became the dean of the University of Singapore's medical faculty and her mother became a teacher of literature and drama.

Both Kon's parents read to her a lot and at a very young age, Kon became an avid storyteller. Although she could not write yet, she frequently spun little stories for her mother who wrote them down as she spoke. Afterwards, her mother would show Kon's stories to people. "She was [my] first publisher", says Kon. "She showed great respect for my efforts to create stories, and with that encouragement, I continued to feel it was very worthwhile to be a writer."

At the same time, Kon's mother was establishing herself as an amateur stage actress. In 1951 to 1952 the family was living in London, where Kon's father took a degree in Bacteriology and her mother studied for 18 months at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Back in Singapore, later in the ‘50s, Kon's mother had become one of the pioneering icons of the Singapore English-language theatre scene. Kon often watched rehearsals and helped her learn her lines.

Kon's father was a theatre lover as well. "He had a tremendous ear for language", says Kon. "He could recite Shakespeare and orate… and I suspect that's where the lyric element in my work comes from."

Such early, intimate exposure to theatre had a great positive impact on young Kon. When she returned to Singapore and enrolled in Raffles Girls' School, she began writing plays. Her first, The Fisherman and the King (1952), was written when she was a Standard Three student. It was followed by The Tragedy of Lo Mee Oh and Tzu Lee At in 1956.

In the ‘60s, Kon was a philosophy student at the University of Singapore and in the next few years mainly wrote short stories. Several were published in the university journal Focus. Seven were published in local English-language short story anthologies. 1962's Mushroom Harvest and 1963's Inheritance were featured in 22 Malaysian Stories edited by Lloyd Fernando, 1965's Lion Dance was included in The Flowering Tree edited by Edwin Thumboo, 1965's Bedtime was collected in The Sun in Her Eyes edited by Geraldine Heng, 1965's The Martyrdom of Helena Roderigues and 1969's The Morning Expedition were included in Singapore Short Stories Vol 1, and 1969's The Scholarship was included in Asean Short Stories, both edited by Robert Yeo.

For a year, in 1966, Kon taught at the university's philosophy department. After marrying in 1966, she stayed in Britain for a year, then returned to Malaysia where she worked at Mudajaya Construction Sdn Bhd, in Ipoh, from 1972 to 1979.

She produced several more short stories and also started writing plays and novels including 1975's The Scholar and the Dragon set in Singapore of the 1900s. 1971's plays To Hatch a Swan and Z is for Zygote were produced in Ipoh, and triggered a productive period in her writing career. She followed up with 11 short plays for children from 1975 to 1977 that were published in various collections of plays for schools. In 1977, she wrote The Scholar’s Mother and her first 90-minute play for adults, The Bridge.

The Bridge, which she submitted to the then Ministry of Culture's National Playwriting Competition, won the first prize. Encouraged by this, Kon followed up with 1981's Trial. That year, Kon and her family moved to Britain where her two sons attended school. With her thoughts still on her home country, Kon wrote a third full-length play, 1982's Emily of Emerald Hill, a play she began to conceive while in Ipoh, as well as 1985's novel The Scholar and The Dragon set in Singapore in the 1900s. Both Trial and Emily won the first prizes at the next two National Playwriting Competitions in 1982 and 1985 respectively.

The Bridge and Trial did not get produced but Emily did. A friend of Kon's passed the script to renowned Malaysian theatre director Chin San Sooi. Under his direction, Emily made its debut in Kuala Lumpur in 1984, starring Pearlly Chua. Its success there made the Singapore theatre scene take notice.

In 1985, Max Le Blond produced it with Margaret Chan playing Emily. It is a one-woman monodrama centred on a 1950s Peranakan matriarch whose strong personality Kon based on her own grandmother's. Emily's themes of tradition, heritage, family, displacement amidst modernisation, and feminine self-worth struck a chord with audiences.

Presented at the 1985 Singapore Drama Festival, the production was then invited to the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Edinburgh in 1986 where it received rave reviews, demonstrating its universal appeal. Later that same year, it was invited to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In 1986, Kon resettled in Singapore permanently. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, she wrote nine more plays and two novels, one of which, ESTON, won a Merit Award in the 1994 Singapore Literature Prize Competition.

Kon's success led to speaking engagements at conferences such as the 1989 Symposium on Literature in Asia and the Pacific Region at NUS, the 1992 International Conference for Women and Theatre in Tokyo, and the 1994 3rd International Women Playwrights Conference in Adelaide.

The acclaim also led to a few of her plays being selected to become part of the teaching curriculum of several schools and they were presented at several Youth Drama Festivals. Kon has since conducted seminars and taught creative writing at local schools. Her works have also been anthologised in Modern Anglophone Drama by Women, An Anthology of English Writing from Southeast Asia and Writing in Singapore, as well as in other collections.

In the 2000s, Kon began writing scripts for musical theatre. In 2005, she became president of the Musical Theatre Society, now Musical Theatre Live! (MTL) and has since led the group, as Chairperson, to produce nine of her plays, including 2012's Emily the Musical. For her efforts, she received the South East Asian Writers Award in 2008.

Today, Kon's body of work remains pertinent for Singaporeans across generations and ethnicities. Some of her works show her love for fantasy and science fiction. Others draw inspiration from Singapore's ethnic mythologies and histories and explore issues of heritage and rootedness.

Emily especially has taken on a life of its own. Since the first staging in 1984, Emily has become the most performed English-language play in Singapore and Malaysia; Chin San Sooi alone has done over 300 productions of Emily. It has also been translated into Mandarin and Japanese, broadcast over Radio Iceland, and become Singapore’s best-known play, having travelled to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, New York, Hamburg, Munich, Hawaii, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Beijing and UK.

Well-known Malaysian and Singaporean actors such as Leow Puay Tin, Margaret Chan and Ivan Heng have played Emily multiple times. Most recently, Margaret Chan, Ivan Heng with Wild Rice, and Pearlly Chua with Chin San Sooi and Five Arts Centre revisited Emily in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to critical acclaim. In 2012, the Peranakan Museum held a nine-month-long exhibition of the play together with the set and scripts.

Kon hopes to continue writing for musical theatre. Emily remains her greatest legacy to Singaporeans, a gift to our cultural memory.

Timeline

15 Apr 1944

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland.

1947

Moved to Singapore.

1948 to 1950

Attended kindergarten at Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, Singapore.

1950 to 1951

Attended Raffles Girls' School, Singapore.

1950 to 1952

Attended local county schools in London for 18 months.

1952 to 1962

Attended Raffles Girls' School, Singapore.

1962

Mushroom Harvest published in Lloyd Fernando's collection of 22 Malaysian Stories.

1963 to 1966

Attended University of Singapore.

1966

Graduated with B.A. Philosophy, University of Singapore.

1966 to 1967

Tutor with the Philosophy Department at the University of Singapore.

1967 to 1968

Studied for a Masters degree at the University of Sussex, UK.

1968

Moved to Malaysia.

1972 to 1979

Administration officer, Mudajaya Construction Sdn Bhd, Malaysia.

1975

The Immigrant and Other Plays was published by Heinemann.

1977

The Bridge received 1st prize in National Playwriting Competition, Ministry of Culture.

Emporium and Other Plays published.

1981

The Bridge was published together with other plays.

1982

Trial received 1st prize at the National Playwriting Competition, Ministry of Culture.

Dracula and Other Stories was published.

1983

Emily of Emerald Hill received 1st prize in National Playwriting Competition, Ministry of Culture.

1983 to 1986

Resident in England and in Edinburgh.

Nov 1984

First performance of Emily of Emerald Hill, Seremban, Malaysia.

4-5 Sep 1985

First Singapore performance of Emily of Emerald Hill at Singapore Drama Festival, Drama Centre.

1985 to 2013

Emily of Emerald Hill performed internationally, at arts festivals in Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, New York, Hamburg, Berlin and Munich.

1986

The Scholar and the Dragon was published.

Trial was published together with other plays.

1987

Returned to Singapore.

1988 to 1990

President, The Beginning Experience, Singapore.

1989

Trial was produced by Jurong Junior College in the Youth Arts Festival.

1989

Speaker, Symposium on Literature in Asia and the Pacific Region, National University of Singapore.

Emily of Emerald Hill was published.

Butterflies Don't Cry was produced by Arts and Acts.

1990

Present speaker on writing at various schools and institutions in Singapore.

Conducted seminars.

Panellist on aspects of writing for Musical theatre.

1990

Trial was staged by Theatreworks..

1991 to 1993

Volunteer, Catholic AIDS Response Effort.

1992

Speaker, International Conference for Women and Theatre, Tokyo.

Speaker, Australasian Playwrights' Conference, Canberra.

1994

Eston received Singapore Literature Prize, Merit.

Speaker, 3rd International Women Playwrights Conference, Adelaide.

1995

The novel Eston was published.

1995 to 2014

Committee member, World Community for Christian Meditation, Singapore.

1999

Visited Chinese Writers' Association, Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou with writer's group sponsored by NUS.

Silent Song was produced in Ipoh, Malaysia.

2000

A Breeding Pair was published.

2001

Interview by Ronald Klein published in Interlogue Studies in Singapore Literature.

2002

Emily of Emerald Hill staged by Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Singapore.

Exodus: A Journey of Faith was produced by Anglo Chinese School, Singapore.

2002 to Present

Sole proprietor of publishing business, Constellation Books.

2005 to 2006

President, Musical Theatre Society.

2006

Blue Willow House, Victorian Days and Peter and Pierre were produced by Musical Theatre Society.

2006 to Present

Chairperson, Musical Theatre Ltd.

2008

Received Southeast Asian Writer award.

2009

Lost in Transit was produced by Musical Theatre Limited.

2010

Merlion Rising was produced by Musical Theatre Limited.

2012

Business Partner, Stella Kon Pte Ltd.

Forbidden Hill was commissioned by the Watch-This-Space Group.

Emily The Musical – in Concert was produced by Musical Theatre Limited.

The Bridge, Trial and Dragon's Teeth Gate were published in collection 3 Stellar Plays by Constellation Books.

Jun 2012 to Feb 2013

Exhibition at The Peranakan Museum: EMILY OF EMERALD HILL – Singapore Identity on Stage.

Oct to Present

Proposed full-scale production of Emily – The Musical in 2015.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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